Joe Barton’s verbal spill

June 17th, 2010

The common (and certainly sensible) refrain in the BP oil spill saga is the notion that it’s more important to cap the leak first, and then move on to figuring out who’s to blame and how it happened.  We’ve seen the reaction when prominent critics don’t heed this premise.  So the question for today is, what was Congressman Joe Barton thinking?

At today’s Congressional hearing investigating BP, Barton emphatically repeated his view that BP’s $20 billion escrow account was effectively a White House “shakedown” of the embattled corporation.  The predictable push-back came from his political opponents, but perhaps more interesting is the stern response from Barton’s own Republican leaders.  According to the Washington Post, House Republican leadership told Barton that if he did not apologize immediately, he would be removed as Ranking Member to the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Shortly thereafter, Barton apologized.

From the public relations perspective, it’s easy to see how Barton’s apology came to fruition.  Simply put, if the dominant media narrative for any BP oil spill stakeholder is to push for an end to the crisis, any statement inconsistent with that narrative will stand out, for better or worse.  This is exactly what happened with Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul.  By claiming that criticism of BP is “un-American,” Paul flew wildly off script and became a lightning rod for political attacks.

The point is, regardless of whether BP’s escrow plan is an appropriate step toward proper compensation, savvy politicians and media professionals know there’s a time and a place for such criticism.  As the BP oil spill continues to outdo itself as America’s worst environmental disaster ever, the best PR tactic is to focus on the spill itself, as that’s the fire that still needs to be extinguished.

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